The Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA) has called for Australia and the international community to do more to protect Rohingya refugees in the Asia-Pacific region as the number of refugees fleeing violence in Burma continues to grow.

RCOA chief executive officer Paul Power said the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had estimated that since violence erupted Burma’s Rakhine state two years ago more than 86,000 people, most of them Rohingya people, had fled by boat across the Bay of Bengal to seek refugee protection.

“Tragically, more than 1300 people have died making this journey in search of protection while those who have made it to Thailand and Malaysia have become victims of human trafficking, detention in squalid smugglers’ camps and violence that in some cases has resulted in their deaths,” Mr Power said.

“In Malaysia, some of the Rohingya refugees assisted by UNHCR are so malnourished that they cannot walk. In Thailand, UNHCR reports that some Rohingya people were held for months in overcrowded smugglers’ camps or even cages, where they were subjected to daily beatings and forced to sleep upright or in foetal position due to lack of space.

“The Australian Government claims that its harsh deterrence policies aim to stop people smuggling and prevent people risking their lives at sea. But where is its concern for the thousands of Rohingya people who have been horrifically exploited by people smugglers and traffickers, who have drowned in the Bay of Bengal or died of thirst or hunger after losing their way at sea? The boats may have stopped reaching Christmas Island but they certainly have not stopped leaving Burma. The people smuggling trade is still alive and well in Asia.”

The Rohingya, a persecuted Muslim minority who were made stateless by Burma’s citizenship legislation in the 1980s, have for decades faced serious persecution, violence, land confiscations, discrimination and other human rights abuses. Despite being widely acknowledged as one of the most persecuted groups in the world, Rohingya people seeking a safe haven meet a hostile reception in Asia.

“Rohingya people are treated as illegal immigrants wherever they seek refuge, including Australia. The countries they flee to – Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Bangladesh – are not signatories to the Refugee Convention, have no domestic refugee legislation and refuse to provide protection to people fleeing persecution. In some cases, they actively block refugees from registering with UNHCR and seeking resettlement.

“To make matters worse, Australia is behaving just as badly – detaining Rohingya people for months on end, subjecting them to harsh and degrading conditions in offshore detention centres, forcing them back to Indonesia and, inexplicably, refusing to resettle Rohingya people in Australia. When Australia not only refuses to protect but actively mistreats this highly vulnerable group of people, what hope is there that our Asian neighbours will improve their appalling treatment of people seeking refuge?

“The Abbott Government is telling the nation and the world that our nation’s primary sphere of influence is the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean region. The Rohingya refugee crisis provides a perfect opportunity for the Government to show that its interest in the region and its concern for the lives of refugees is not empty rhetoric.

“If the Australian Government is serious about saving lives, it should be using its influence within the region to broker solutions for the Rohingya people and encourage our neighbours to improve protection for people fleeing persecution. We should be providing realistic alternatives to dangerous boat journeys, not replicating the conditions which drive this deadly trade.”

The UNHCR statement on the flight of refugees from Burma, issued last night (Australian time), can be found at http://www.unhcr.org/5396ee3b9.html

View pdf here:140611_Rohingya